US official: Iraqi hit squads training in Iran
By PAMELA HESS, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - Iraqi Shiite assassination teams are being trained in at least four locations in Iran by Tehran's elite Quds force and Lebanese Hezbollah and are planning to return to Iraq in the next few months to kill specific Iraqi officials as well as U.S. and Iraqi troops, according to intelligence gleaned from captured militia fighters and other sources in Iraq.
A senior U.S. military intelligence officer in Baghdad described the information Thursday in an interview with The Associated Press. He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.
The officer on Wednesday provided Iraq's national security adviser with several lists of the assassination teams' expected targets. He said the targets include many judges but would not otherwise identify them. Iraq's intelligence service is preparing operations to determine where and when the special group fighters will enter the country and is to provide an assessment to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The U.S. official acknowledged disclosing the information in an attempt to pressure Iran to suspend the training and prevent the militia fighters from returning to Iraq. The U.S. military also wants the Iraqi government to take steps to protect the targets. "Wanted" posters picturing men believed to be heading the special groups are being posted around Baghdad, the military officer said.
The U.S. also is encouraging the Iraqi government to confront Iran with the information in diplomatic channels, and it wants Iraq to continue pumping money into its own reconstruction. By building stability and Iraqis' confidence in their government, internal support for militia groups should decline, making it more difficult for them to operate.
The fighters are expected to return to Iraq between now and October, but the officer said there's no intelligence suggesting they are actually in Iraq yet. The information came from militia fighters captured in Iraq and other sources in the country that the officer would not describe.
Many of the fighters fled to Iran this spring after Iraqi government forces cracked down first on militia sanctuaries in Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City district, then in Amarah and now in Diyala province, the military officer said.
One of the reasons the U.S. believes the special groups moved out during that period is the sharp decline in the number of deadly roadside bombs bearing Iran's signature explosive design. In March, there were 55 such attacks. By July, that number had dropped to around 18, the officer said. U.S. intelligence believes those sophisticated bombs can be traced back to Iran.
Iran, Hezbollah's benefactor, denies giving any support to Shiite extremists in Iraq.
The officer said training is going on in at least four locations in Iran: Qom, Tehran, Ahvaz and Mashhad. The number of "special group criminals" — the U.S. name for Iraqi fighters sponsored by Iran — is unknown but is estimated in the hundreds and possibly more than 1,000.
According to the officer, the training camps are operating under the direction of Quds force commander Brig. Gen. Ghassem Soleimani, with the knowledge and approval of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The elite Quds Force is a branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
The training includes how to conduct reconnaissance to pinpoint targets, small arms and weapons training, small unit tactics and terrorist cell operations and communications. They are also learning how to use bombs packed with explosive penetrators that can rip through U.S. armored vehicles, along with other improvised explosive devices and rocket-propelled grenades, including the RPG-29 used by Lebanese Hezbollah and the Quds force. They are also receiving training on assassination techniques, employing RPGs, small arms or explosives, the officer said.
Lebanese Hezbollah conducts much of the training in the camps because they speak Arabic. Iranians are Persian and speak Farsi. Lebanese Hezbollah also has credibility with the Iraqis, given the successful 2006 uprising in Lebanon, the officer said. The U.S. officer said there are no confirmed reports of Lebanese Hezbollah members crossing into Iraq.
That conflicts with what Iraqi Shiite lawmakers and a top Iraqi army officer told the AP last month: Hezbollah trainers were running training camps in southern Iraq until April, when they were pushed into Iran by the Iraqi crackdown.
The trainees in the Iranian camps include three Iraqis already wanted by the Iraqi government for terrorist attacks: Haji Mahdi, Haji Thamir and Baqir al Sa'idi, the officer said. He identified two Iraqi Shiite militia groups in Iran by name: "The League of the Righteous," or "Asaib al Haq," and the "Kataib al Hezbollah."
Foot soldiers and cell leaders are physically separated for most of the training, the officer said. Leaders are trained in Tehran and cell members are in separate camps where Quds trainers attempt to indoctrinate them without competition from their Iraqi leaders.
The "special group criminals" are offshoots of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi militia. They spun off their own groups after al-Sadr declared a cease-fire with the Iraqi government in August 2007 and are not thought to be under his control now.